Sports: Beijing Olympics 2008


India’s Olympic curse has finally been lifted by the brilliant ­individual achievements of Abhinav Bindra, Vijender Kumar and Sushil Kumar, and if private funding continues the 
country could bring in a heavier haul in 2012

By Rakesh K. Simha

Perhaps it was fitting that India’s first gold medal in an individual Olympic event was won by the CEO of a computer company. Indian software companies are so used to swatting the competition aside that 25-year-old Abhinav Bindra shot his way to the top of the 10-metre air rifle competition with similar disdain. The shots resounded all the way across a country that had until then shown monumental indifference towards Olympic sports. The country’s television channels, suddenly switched from cricket to blanket coverage of the Beijing Olympics. A few days later more medals came India’s way as Vijender Kumar, 23, won a bronze in boxing and grappler Sushil Kumar, 24, won a bronze.

Abhinav, Sushil and Vijender’s heroics not only provided the late sparks to an otherwise dismal campaign but has created a record of sorts as India had never returned with three medals from the Olympics.

While all three winners have been catapulted from obscurity to fame, what is remarkable is their diverse backgrounds, prompting the media to describe it as India’s grassroots sporting awakening

India’s best-ever performance at the Olympics is a “historic breakthrough” for the country according to analysts, who consider shooter Bindra’s gold equal to that of Chinese sharpshooter Xu Haifeng, who won the first gold for the communist giant in 1984. “The first individual gold for India in the history of Olympics is a historic breakthrough and augurs well for the country’s future,” said former Chinese ambassador to India, Cheng Ruisheng. “I consider Bindra’s gold medal as important as that of Xu,” said Cheng, who is now a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the Sichuan University. 

Abhinav Bindra: Gold in 10-metre air rifle
Sushil Kumar: Bronze, 66kg freestyle wrestling
Vijender Kumar: Bronze in 75kg boxing


While all three winners have been catapulted from obscurity to fame, what is remarkable is their diverse backgrounds, prompting the media to describe it as India’s grassroots sporting awakening. Bindra is the son of a prosperous businessman with an Olympic-size shooting range in his backyard, Vijender is a bus driver’s son and Sushil learned to wrestle in the dirt on the outskirts of Delhi.

Until their wins, India’s population of more than a billion seemed to be collectively shrugging at all the carryings-on generated by China. While India’s neighbour across the Himalayas won 100 medals, including 51 golds, and the People’s Republic overtook the US to become the world’s greatest sporting nation, India’s best performance was a gold and a bronze in the Helsinki Games more than half a century ago.

But all that has changed for ever. As Bindra bagged gold and the dashing Vijender took on the might of the East Europeans and Cubans, TV channels provided wall-to-wall coverage, families danced in the streets, and political leaders tried to outdo each other in handing out millions of rupees in prize money. Laloo Prasad, railways minister, gave Bindra a pass entitling him and a companion to free first-class travel for life and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, gave him Rs 25 lakh. Bipasha Basu dangled a date if Vijender won gold and it remains to be seen if he’ll get anything for bronze!

But seriously, what these three athletes have done is something that has not happened in a 100 years—private funding and nongovernmental zeal is now beginning to flow into the empty coffers of Indian sport. And this infusion of money and support is likely to bear fruit for Indian athletes in the 2012 Games. Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal’s Mittal Champions Trust finds and trains promising Indian athletes. Its flock of 32 produced over a dozen that qualified to travel to Beijing this year. Another group, Olympic Gold Quest, with less funding but more sports experience, supported just two athletes: shooter Gagan Narang and runner Tintu Luka. Gold Quest is the brainchild of Geet Sethi, a billiards champion, and Prakash Padukone, India’s best-ever badminton player. Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest resident, arrived in Beijing in his private jet and may take similar measures to train potential Indian Olympians.

So far few nations have been bigger underachievers at the Olympics than India. But after the heroics by Bindra, Vijender and Sushil, we can safely say that India’s Olympic curse has finally been lifted.

September 2008

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